MOGADISHU: Somali militants firing vehicle-mounted anti-aircraft guns clashed with African Union forces for a second night in Mogadishu, killing at least nine people including women and children, an ambulance official said on Sunday.
African Union (AU) troops launched a new offensive against Al Shabaab on Friday, seizing rebel positions just outside the capital for the first time.
The insurgents, however, have launched counter attacks.
On Saturday night they struck a government military checkpoint known as ‘Ex-control’ in a northwest suburb of the coastal city. Soldiers with the AU’s AMISOM force repelled the assault, an AMISOM spokesman said.
Caught in the crossfire were Somalis seeking refuge in camps for displaced people, victims already of the anarchic country’s two-decade civil war, or famine.
"At least nine displaced people, mostly women and children died in the camps near the former American embassy on Friday and Saturday night," Ali Musa, coordinator of the city’s ambulance services, told Reuters.
Ex-control is a strategically important checkpoint. On the outskirts of Mogadishu, it is the final government-controlled roadblock on the road that bends south to Afgoye, a rebel stronghold about 30 km (17 miles) from the capital.
"These (two) nights Al Shabaab came close with anti-craft guns mounted on lorries, but we repulsed them," Ndayiragije Come, spokesman for the AU’s Burundian contingent, said.
Air strike installs fear
Camp resident Mohamed Sidow buried his mother on Sunday morning in a shallow grave, hours after a stray round killed her.
"A bullet hit her in the head as she slept in front of our shelter last night," Sidow told Reuters.
Panic engulfed the camp through the night, he said, as shells pounded the area and bullets fizzed through the air. Trapped, Sidow and others were unable to take the wounded to hospital.
"We could not carry my mother to hospital last night. Al Shabaab’s anti-aircraft fire forced us to stay put. My mother died from blood loss," he said.
Meanwhile, scores of families fled Elasha town and the surrounding area after Al Shabaab said a missile fired by a US drone had hit a car in the town, about 13 km from Mogadishu, killing one of its senior militants.
In a statement emailed late on Saturday, the insurgents said the militant was British passport holder Bilal El Berjawi, also known as Abu Hafsa. Of Lebanese descent, he grew up in west London and joined Somalia’s Islamist militants in early 2006.
"Hafsa … took on a distinguished role in the fight against the warlords that terrorized the city of Mogadishu at the time," the statement said.
Asha Ibrahim, a mother of five, said she and her children were fleeing the town of Lafole, close to Elasha.
"Mogadishu is no paradise, but we believe air strikes are more destructive than the shelling in Mogadishu," she told Reuters.
"In Lafole, Al Shabaab is everyone’s neighbor, so we are vulnerable to the bombs intended for Al-Qaeda."